The passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 marked the most decisive blow against legalized discrimination and disenfranchisement since the end of the Civil War. This piece of legislation stopped states across the former Confederacy from enacting literacy tests, poll taxes and various other methods meant to stop black people from exercising their most fundamental right: to make their will known at the polls. In the wake of the law, black voter registration and turnout levels came to near parity with whites, and discriminatory election laws were halted in areas with a history of state-sponsored racism.
However, the most effective part of the VRA was gutted by the Supreme Court in its tragic 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision. After Shelby was handed down, there was an onslaught of new laws meant to tighten election rules in the name of combatting “voter fraud,” instituting strict new requirements on photo IDs. Many of these laws also restricted early voting and made registration more expensive and time consuming.
Now, the cause of preventing voter fraud seems noble enough. People need to have confidence that their votes are being heard and that the results of elections are not being manipulated. However, that problem needs to exist in order for an onerous solution to be put into place to stop it – and it simply does not.
Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School, has conducted a study of nearly all local, state and federal elections between 2000 and 2014. Of the more than one billion votes cast, there were 31 documented instances of in-person voter fraud. Let that sink in. That means that for any particular person coming to the polls, there is a 0.000000031 percent chance that they will try to cast a fraudulent ballot. That is shockingly unlikely and certainly not significant enough to justify limiting the opportunity to vote.
The most egregious of these laws was the one enacted by North Carolina in 2013. Just one day after Shelby County v. Holder absolved the state from the VRA’s mandate of submitting election changes to the federal government for approval, the Republican legislature announced its intention to pass a comprehensive election law. It requested a study of voting practices broken down by race and after introducing the law, pushed it through in just three days.
As stated by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, the law targeted black people with “an almost surgical precision.” It either eliminated or severely restricted the use of five voting practices disproportionately used by blacks: use of several forms of photo ID, pre-registration for high schoolers, same-day registration, provisional ballots and early voting. The only practice in which there was any actual proof of fraud, absentee ballots, is disproportionately used by whites. It was left alone. One senior North Carolina GOP official stated in an interview that if the law “hurts whites, so be it. If it hurts a bunch of lazy blacks that want the government to give them everything, so be it.”
This baldly racist law was struck down this summer but was in place for the 2014 election. Black registration and turnout, which had been skyrocketing between 2008 and 2012, flatlined. Even now with the law struck down, Republican-dominated county election boards are still wrangling to reduce early voting periods and decrease the kinds of ID that can be used. This is the deeply disturbing reality of combating discrimination in the wake of Shelby County: laws like this must be fought after rather than before their enactment, and minority voters suffer gravely because of it.
Republican officials have been peddling the lie of “voter fraud” in an effort to justify laws such as this, which have been enacted in at least 12 states since 2011. For the wealthy and white, flexibility with ID, registration and early voting are a convenience. For the poor and colored, they are a necessity to make their voices heard. Disenfranchisement is not only disgusting on its own accord; it also is the ultimate act of cowardice. If you have to stop people from voting to stay in power, your policies are wrong. It is as simple as that.
Carl Costa is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.